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Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop are two notable figures in American poetry. They share some similarities, such as the fact that they both have written many pieces on the theme of nature and the fact that someone close to them suffered mental instability, and yet, their styles and ideas are uniquely their own, which make them worth comparing. In order to better compare them, though, and analyze their poetic style, let us take a look at some examples of their work - "The Fish" and "The Moose" by Elizabeth Bishop and "Two Look at Two" by Robert Frost.
"The Fish" is one of Elizabeth Bishop's most famous poems, which simply tells the experience of catching a fish in meticulous detail. At first, the speaker does not mind the fish very much, content to have caught it, but as he pulls it out of the water, he sees the fish in a different light, as if seeing a fish for the first time. He notices every detail - the "brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper", "the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood", the pair of eyes with "irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil" and finally, the "five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth". With the observation of each detail, the speaker becomes filled with awe and a sense of victory and eventually lets the fish go.
"The Moose" is also a very descriptive poem, again illustrating Bishop's mastery of imagery. It starts by the speaker describing the countryside in detail, the bus that journeys through it as the late afternoon turns into a misty, moonlit night then the passengers of the bus, some of whom are sleeping and others engaged in conversations about various trivial matters such as misunderstandings, pensions, sicknesses, marriages and deaths. Finally, towards the end of the poem, the title character appears on the middle of the road, causing the bus to stop and eliciting different opinions and feelings from the passengers - feelings of fear, of surprise, disappointment, awe and finally, joy - before the bus goes on its journey into the night.
"Two Look at Two"
"Two Look at Two" by Robert Frost centers on a couple who, wanting to enjoy each other's company a bit longer in spite of night approaching, climb up a mountainside to find themselves confronted by a wall. As they wonder what to do with the wall and which path to take, a pair of deer appear - a doe first than a buck - who stare at the couple, regarding them with curiosity but not fear, before passing along the wall, leaving the couple standing there.
Frost, Bishop and Nature
As mentioned earlier, Frost and Bishop are two poets known for writing about nature, with the poems "The Fish", "The Moose" and "Two Look at Two" being some of the best examples. However, the way they view and tackle nature is not the same, but can, in fact, be on opposite ends of the pole. Indeed, at first glance, the poems may all seem similar since they involve confrontations or encounters between man and nature but a closer look reveals a significant difference in how Frost and Bishop view and portray nature.
For starters, Bishop views nature with pure admiration and unveiled awe. This sentiment of Bishop is best illustrated in "The Fish" as she describes the fish in detail, something only someone fascinated would do. Furthermore, the descriptions used such as the comparisons to ancient wallpaper, full-blown roses, fine rosettes, the shiny entrails and the comparison of the bones to feathers all denote a sense of beauty, as if the speaker is marvelling at the natural beauty of the fish at the end of the hook.
The same sentiment can also be found in "The Moose" where the moose is described as "Towering, antlerless, high as a church, homely as a house" as well as "grand, otherworldly" - truly a magnificent creature.
Although the passengers are not as fascinated by the moose as the fisherman is by the fish, the awe is there, as evidenced by their childish exclaims in whispers.
On the other hand, Frost regards nature with curiosity, fear and respect. True, the couple in the end are moved by the deer - "Still they stood/A great wave from it going over them" - in the same way the humans in Bishop's poems are moved by the fish and the moose, but it is more of respect and not admiration. With Frost, man and nature are on an equal plane, just as the human couple and the deer are on the same field but on two opposite ends of the wall, whereas with Bishop, nature is presented on a higher plane like a divine masterpiece, with the animals presented as seemingly ethereal creatures, perhaps something that can be attributed to Bishop's background of transcendentalism. This is hinted in the lines "She saw them in their field, they her in hers" and "Two had seen two, whichever side you spoke from" as well as in the title of the poem itself.
Unlike Bishop, Frost also does not deem nature as beautiful but as something dangerous - a viewpoint also apparent in his other poems. The doe is not described while the other is only mentioned as "an antlered buck of lusty nostril", words not meant to elicit a sense of beauty but more of fear. Frost's view of nature as a dangerous force is reinforced in the fact that the couple seem afraid. They stay still, without speaking or moving, leading the doe and the buck to wonder if they are alive. It is as if the animals have a certain power over the humans since they are the ones who are curious - "He viewed them quizzically with jerks of head", even daring them to "stretch a proferring hand".
In this way, it can be said that Bishop views nature as a feminine force, as something beautiful, warm and nurturing while Frost seems to view nature in the opposite way - as a masculine force - strong, intimidating and potentially destructive.
Because of the difference in the way they view nature, the essence of the relationship between man and nature is also different according to each poet. For Bishop, there is an intimate understanding, a deep connection between man and nature. In "The Fish", towards the end, the man's fascination turns into sympathy, especially when he sees the hooks in the jaw of the fish, which are "Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw". The hooks must have been a grim sight and yet the man is only reminded of his own trials that he has had to endure throughout his life, the marks of which, though invisible, he still bears. This connection is what turns his sympathy into joy. Indeed, the poem ends joyously as "victory filled up the little rented boat" and as the boat, old, rusted and in bad shape, is seemingly transformed into something shiny and new - "until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" - because of the meaningful encounter with nature.
In "The Moose", the connection between man and nature is also apparent. True, the moose may appear like a creature from another world, and yet it steps into the human world as it comes "out of the impenetrable wood and stands there, looms, rather, in the middle of the road". The humans may seem entwined in their own lives and yet as the moose appears, they forget all these and turn to the creature and a connection is made, one that touches them and moves them so that even after the bus has continued moving and the humans have continued on their way, the 'smell of moose' is still with them.
Again, there is joy here as explicitly stated in the line "Why, why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy?" which further proves Bishop's positive outlook on nature and the idea that oneness with nature creates harmony and joy for man.
As for Frost, the relationship with man and nature, like the relationship between the deer and the couple in "Two Look at Two" is one that is somewhat alienating. It is more of a confrontation, a struggle and not a connection. True, at the end of the poem, there may have been a slight connection since "earth returned their love" but for most of the poem, it is a struggle - man against nature rather than one with nature. There is, after all, a wall in the poem dividing the deer and the couple, one with barbed-wire binding that cannot be scaled, suggesting that though they are equal, man and nature are separate. Indeed, the deer are only puzzled by the couple whereas the humans feel alienated by the deer, afraid to come close and feeling that they are on dangerous and unfamiliar territory.
Indeed, Frost demonstrates a more negative outlook on nature, which is perhaps why the poem has a sad feel and not the feeling of exhilaration in Bishop's poems. While more positive compared to his other poems such as "Stopping By The Woods on a Snowy Evening", it is still sad in that man and nature go their separate ways with little gained from each other.
In summary, Frost dramatizes the relationship between man and nature as alienating, with man respectful yet fearful of the dangers of nature, whereas Bishop champions this relationship, saying that encounters with nature can produce a connection with something more divine, which in turn, creates a sense of completion and joy.